Getting young people interested in science will be a major focus for Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus when she becomes president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1997.
"The public doesn't fully appreciate that nowadays, Americans are winning Nobel Prizes because of work done 20 years ago," Professor Dresselhaus, who also is professor of electrical engineering and physics, told a meeting of the New England Science Writers last Wednesday. "To keep new applications going, we have to have a continuity of people."
Professor Dresselhaus listed four areas of focus for the AAAS when she becomes president:
- Getting scientists to know the federal budget limitations so they can focus on what to do with the available funds.
- Getting scientists to talk with the public to help the public better understand science.
- Trying to hold joint activities on behalf of science such as budget issues or educating the public, since the AAAS has members from all sciences.
- Trying to attract young people to science.
Professor Dresselhaus pointed to several disturbing trends in science studies, including a 15 percent nationwide drop in the number of graduate students in physics over the past couple of years. However, on a positive note. the ranks of women scientists are swelling, she added.
"When I came to MIT, 4 percent of the undergraduates were women. Now we're 40 percent," said Professor Dresselhaus, who was appointed an MIT professor in 1967. She said that she would see one woman student at most in her classes in the 1960s.
The recent increase in women scientists can be seen in the average age of scientists' ages in certain fields. In physics, for example, the average woman physicist is 32 years old and the average man is 45. "So if you take a man aged 50, he's not used to seeing women [scientists] around," Professor Dresselhaus said. While that still is a very big difference, women and men in science now can have the same expectations for careers, she added.
What's important is that once scientists are established, they must help the people coming after them, Professor Dresselhaus said. Science writers can play an important role as well. "To the extent that a writer can capture the excitement of science and relate that to the public, that's really what it's all about," she said.
Professor Dresselhaus herself has a long history of public service, particularly in developing opportunities for women in science and engineering, in addition to her teaching duties at MIT. She also recently completed a graduate text book on fullerenes called The Science of Fullerenes and Carbon Nanotubes.
Her secret to her many accomplishments is "going to bed at 11:30 pm and starting work at MIT at 6 am."
Professor Dresselhaus was named Institute Professor in 1985, a title MIT reserves for only a handful of scholars of special distinction. She was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor in science and technology, in 1990. She also is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering and is a past president of the American Physical Society.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 23, 1996.